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Andrew Kane: the 'blessing' of Asperger's

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 22, 2009 - After giving birth to her first child, Sheri Briley of Florissant tried everything she knew to calm her very fussy baby. She put him in an infant swing, but he hated it. Her mother advised placing him in his baby carrier on the running dryer, hoping the white noise and vibration would soothe him. That didn't work, either.

"He would scream bloody murder," Briley remembered.

Her son Andrew Kane grew to be a smart though unpredictable child. In kindergarten, he would get upset for no apparent reason, run out of the classroom and hide in the hall under a desk or table. The school advised his mom to put her son on Ritalin. She refused but acquiesced to a diagnosis of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) so he could receive Special School District services.

His general-education classroom was a mix of children, with issues including blindness, physical disabilities and English as a second language -- far from an ideal situation, Briley says. Her son continued to be disruptive and perform poorly in school. Finally, when he was diagnosed with Asperger's at the age of 10, everything made sense, even his infant behaviors, because people with Asperger's are often hypersensitive to noise, touch and movement.

"It was the frame for the puzzle. You've got to have that border before you figure out where the other pieces go," Briley said.

Andrew, now 17, embraced the Asperger's diagnosis but prefers the word "autistic," because more people are familiar with the word. "My first thought was, 'Albert Einstein was supposedly autistic. He got through it OK. and I can, too,'" Andrew recalled.


Andew likes to figure things out. Though he rarely has friends over or goes over to other people's houses, he stays busy.

"We've probably got four CD players and a couple of computers that he took apart. Who knows what he'll make with them?" Briley asked.

Andrew has his own business cards for the desktop customizing work he'd like to do. He enjoys drawing --- especially dragons --- and some of his art and his writing appear in a book about kids with Asperger's called "More Than Little Professors." His inimitable sense of humor includes playing little tricks on others.

"Your socks are untied," he likes to joke, noting that people almost always fall for it and look down to check.

Sitting up straight, his hands close by his side, Andrew seems confident, almost cocky, his blue eyes sparkling with intelligence as he speaks deliberately, using the words "Yes, ma'am" to answer in the affirmative.

He volunteers the story of a middle-school incident that would send most teenagers into the depths of humiliation; for one thing, it involves underwear --- sort of. Because of his tactile sensitivity, Anrew used to wear tight, white lycra pressure shorts and shirts under his clothes, feeling secure in what he calls his "under-armor."

"One day at lunchtime, I took off my clothes and wore nothing but my under-armor and my shoes," Andrew revealed. "People asked me what was wrong with me, and I'd say, 'I have autism.' It completely and totally psyched them out."

Last year, as a high school junior, he ate lunch alone and endured some teasing. Someone put tea leaves that looked like marijuana in his locker and one boy typed the words "aspie" and "creep" into a shared computer game system at school.

Does he care that he doesn't fit in? "Not really," Andrew said, adding there's one important no-teasing zone in his life. "The only place I don't get that is in online games."


At school, Andrew still has a few special accommodations. He gets extended time on tests and has found a way to block out distractions from the other students.

"I can't stand the way a pen or a pencil scratches on paper. That's why I wear my MP3 player," Andrew said.

But not all teachers are eager to give Kane the accommodations spelled out in a special services document called an I.E.P. (Individualized Education Plan). One teacher accused him of forging the note that allowed the MP3 player, Andrew says. Now, he says he's getting the help he needs, but his mother is not so sure.

Often bored in class, Andrew likes biology and computer courses but finds it hard to concentrate in others. He's been promoted in school even without passing all his classes.

"That's typical," noted Christine Rankin, a psychologist working mostly with Asperger's clients. "A lot of times people with Asperger's don't see the work as necessary and important: 'Why should I bother doing that' [they wonder]? You really have to get them on an incentive program."

That may sound like classic teenage behavior, but it's much more than that, Rankin explains: "It involves a longstanding pattern of problems."

Andrew's 11th-grade biology teacher can attest to his distractibility and failure to turn in some of his homework. "A lot of little assignments -- I wouldn't see half of them. Sometimes I would find them inside of random desks in the classroom," said Maureen O'Brien.

But his broad knowledge, knack for solving problems and ability to share what he knows with his classmates make him a "great student," she says.

"He could explain things to them, whereas I might have a difficult time. He would put it in teenager language," O'Brien said.


After he graduates from high school next May, Andrew plans to take a year off to work before making any decisions about higher education, possibly community college or a four-year university. He sees himself perhaps employed one day in a field involving computers or graphic design.

Unlike many prospective seniors stressing out over their ACT and SAT scores and college applications, Andrew is not at all anxious about his future and sees no obstacles to his success. But he does have other, less common concerns.

"Heights, elevators, escape routes," Andrew began a list. "I'm afraid that I might get kidnapped; that's why I carry a pocketknife with me everywhere. If I got thrown into the back of a van after a kidnapping I would cut my bonds and hold the knife to the captor's throat and tell him to take me back."

Worried at times about her son's rich inner life, Briley wonders if she has overprotected him while trying to be a good parent. "He's oblivious to the problems he's going to face out there. I kind of created a fantasy world where we accept his differences and play to his strengths, but in the real world, they're not going to do that for him."

As for Andrew, he's comfortable with himself and proud of who he is: "I have autism, and it's a blessing because it makes me different than the people around me."

Nancy Larson is a freelance journalist who has a 19-year-old son with Asperger's. 

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.